Exploring the Plant-Based Protein Trend for 2019

By: Watson Team on Feb 25, 2019

Plant-based product claims increased by a whopping 62% globally between 2013 and 2017, according to Innova Market Insights, with plant-based proteins playing a key role.1 Plant-based proteins have pushed beyond meat and dairy alternatives, vegan nutrition bars, and protein-fortified beverages into mainstream products like chips, pasta, and frozen meals. This year manufacturers can expect to see growth in pea protein-fortified products, as well as the emergence of new proteins like lupin and water lentils.

Understanding Consumer Demand

Innova Market Insights found that younger people’s interest in plant-based products is driven by health, sustainability, and animal welfare concerns, while older people are choosing plant-based primarily for health reasons. It’s clear that vegans and vegetarians are not driving the market, as there simply aren’t enough of them. Most consumers who eat plant-based protein products are also eating animal protein products.  

According to Nielsen, 55% of U.S. households say high protein is an important consideration when grocery shopping.2 Increasingly, people are looking for protein claims and checking the nutrition label when choosing products. Savvy consumers understand that the benefits of protein include satiety (which can help with weight loss and weight maintenance) and supporting muscle (both building muscle and preventing age-related muscle loss).

Plant-based proteins are often perceived by consumers as healthier than animal proteins, as plant-based proteins have come to be associated with the clean label movement. The proliferation of plant-based proteins available from ingredient suppliers has made it easier than ever for food and beverage manufacturers to capitalize on both the plant-based and protein trends by adding plant-based proteins to their products.

Bowls of lentils and legumes.

The Top Plant-Based Proteins

Some plants have higher protein content than others or proteins that are more easily extracted. And, of course, having a great flavor (or at least a neutral flavor) can go a long way in popularizing a plant protein. The top plant-based proteins in the U.S. market today include:

  • Legumes – soybeans, chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, and peas
  • Nuts – almonds and cashews
  • Seeds – hemp, chia, and flax
  • Grains – wheat, rice, quinoa, and amaranth

These can be added as protein isolates or concentrates, as flours or purees, or as the whole food. Dairy alternatives (which include plant-based milks, ice creams, and yogurts) are often made with soybeans, almonds, cashews, hemp, or flax, while meat alternatives commonly rely on soy protein isolate or wheat protein concentrate. 

Quinoa and amaranth, as flours or whole, are popular in cereals and baked goods. Legumes like chickpeas, lentils, and fava beans can also be added as flours and are showing up in baked goods, chips, and high-protein pastas.

Market newcomer pea protein has done extremely well as an allergen-free, functional protein replacement to soy. Furthermore, unlike soy, all pea is non-GMO. Pea protein has quickly expanded into other plant-based dairy products, as well as cereals, chips, and beverages. New products using pea protein include Protes Vegan Baked Chips, Daiya Greek Yogurt Alternative, and Halo Top Dairy Free Frozen Dessert (which uses a blend of pea and rice proteins).

Woman giving her daughter an ice cream cone.

Emerging Plant-Based Proteins

While ingredient suppliers continue to innovate with these plant-based proteins (seeking to reduce off-flavors and improve functionalities like gelling and emulsification), they are also seeking out new sources of plant-based proteins. 

One promising legume is lupin (or lupini bean), which is a functional, allergen-free substitute to soy. A German company has developed a lupin protein isolate that’s currently being used in a plant-based ice cream line in Europe. 

Another emerging protein is from a water plant called duckweed, also known as water lentils due to the shape. Dried, ground duckweed is touted as a highly sustainable, complete protein. It comes as a green powder and is allergen-free.

Algae provides another opportunity for sustainable protein. Some food futurists are also putting oat, potato, and watermelon seed on the list of the next big plant-based proteins.

Nutrition First

Nutrition continues to be top of mind for consumers as they seek to improve their health through food. Fortifying a product with protein, fiber, vitamins, or minerals is an easy way to create a nutrition label that stands out from the competition. To learn more about formulating the nutritious products consumers want, download our Quick Reference Guide to Nutrition.


1. Innova Market Insights. (2018). 62% Increase in Plant-based Product Claims, Says Innova Market Insights. Retrieved from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/62-increase-in-plant-based-product-claims-says-innova-market-insights-300677563.html

2. Nielsen. (2018). Protein: Consumers Want It, But Don’t Understand It. Retrieved from https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/protein-consumers-want-it-but-dont-understand-it.html